The work of literature in the age of Netflix


The Girlfriend and I are at different points in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, having both finished vol. 4 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m sure we are hardly the only couple to both be making our way through these two Major International Literary Events, which are so often paired. In some ways, this phenomenon is puzzling, because what binds the two — memoiristic detail — is hardly unique to either of them, and in any case Ferrante’s focus on her friend Lila is radically different from Karl Ove’s obsessive fixation on Karl Ove.

Why are Knausgaard and Ferrante both such literary darlings, at this particular historical moment? I propose that the reason is precisely the fact that both have produced series, and the series-form is the signature form of our age. I’m not thinking only of the ways that young-adult fiction, most notably Harry Potter, has shaped the reading habits of those who are now adults (in addition to the adults who read them while already being adults) — though this is obviously hugely important, insofar as it took the series-form, once the redoubt of sci-fi and fantasy nerds, and mainstreamed it. No, even more than that, I’m thinking of the High Quality Cable Dramas that are virtually replacing the novel for many knowledge workers today (and here I must shamefully include myself to some extent).

We are used to investing time in exposition for TV shows, but only if they eventually “get good” and can therefore promise us an ever-expanding reward of ongoing entertainment immersion for our efforts. Literary fiction is a poor fit from this perspective, because no sooner have you become immersed than you are finished and have to start totally from scratch. Even in mainstream movies, the one-off format is becoming intolerable, as “franchises” dominate the scene — so how should we be expected to put up with such a poor ROI on a more labor-intensive format?

The giveaway is that people talk about the two canonical Literary Events in the same way as series. “You have to be patient with the first [book/season], it only really gets good 3/4 of the way through” — am I talking about Ferrante or Boardwalk Empire? Similarly with the loyalty: I’m not sure I’ve met any reader of Knausgaard who isn’t in it for the long haul, despite the widely acknowledged drop-off in quality in vols. 3 and 4.

In an era where TV feels like literature, we want our literature to feel like TV.

What it’s like to be reading Knausgaard

I once read an essay to the effect that one shouldn’t read Proust because one wants to have read Proust, but only if one want to be reading Proust. The same, it seems to me, applies to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle. After Brad and The Girlfriend both recommended it highly, I finally started reading it this summer vacation and am about halfway through volume 1.

It is strangely addictive — I read 50 pages in the first sitting. And I do mean “strangely,” because on the surface it seems meandering and completely plotless. Nevertheless, it creates the impression of a seamless flow. There is an “always already” quality to his storytelling technique, as though he assumes you already somehow know what’s going on. In one case, Karl Ove was gathering wood because “they” would be there soon, and I paused to flip back through and see if I’d missed who “they” were. It turns out I had not — “they” were his grandparents, who had never been mentioned previously in any connection, much less that of their imminent arrival. It’s a small detail, but somehow indicative of his technique — he’s going for full immersion.

And what makes it so fully immersive, at least in the early sections where he is primarily discussing his childhood, is his utter non-judgmentalism of his past self. He occupies the childhood attitude, with its bizarre and cruel struggles for status, its confused conservatism. I don’t think I would be able to write about my childhood like that, without a “what was I thinking?” kind of tone — and I doubt others of a more positive bent would be able to write without a “oh what fun we had” kind of tone.

Beneath the naturalistic surface, too, I perceive an unobtrustive but well-crafted structure. Every so often, I have to pause and ask, “Wait, how exactly did we get here?” The answer isn’t always obvious, but it can always be constructed — and the seemingly baggy stream-of-consciousness narrative suddenly snaps into alignment. He says at one point that literature is purely about imposing form, a claim that seems jarring in context, but retrospectively helps to make sense of what has gone before.

And of course, there are the fun moments, the minor observations. A couple random ones from my segment last night:

After the age of twenty I had hardly ever dreamed about anything that had a bearing on my life. It was as though in dreams I had not grown up, I was still a child surrounded by the same people and places I had been surrounded by in childhood. And even though the events that occurred there were new every night, the feeling they left me with was always the same. The constant feeling of humiliation.

I also finally came across a section that both Brad and The Girlfriend singled out as particularly “relatable” for me. He has just made coffee and poured it into his mug:
I went into the street with the cup in my hand. A slight feeling of unease arose within me at seeing it out here, the cup belonged indoors, not outdoors; outdoors, there was something naked and exposed about it, and as I crossed the street I decided to buy a coffee at the 7-Eleven the following morning, and use their cup, made of cardboard, designed for outdoor use, from then on.

What about you, readers? Have you finally broken down and started reading the Literary Sensation of Our Generation?